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Home > Privacy and Government > Government Threats to Privacy > Public Records > Social Security Numbers

Social Security Numbers

The U.S. Social Security Number (SSN) is an unusual form of public record because it is information that the government created by assigning a unique number to each person. The majority of public records collect preexisting information.

One of the unintended consequences of the SSN is that, despite assurances this would not happen, it has been widely adopted by both governments and the public as a standard identifier. Well beyond administering the Social Security program, the SSN is now used for all varieties of tax collection, credit and banking transactions, federal government security, state-level recordkeeping, passport issuance, and so on.

All of the recordkeeping uniformity created by adoption of the SSN has surely made financial services and government benefits more easily available to people. At the same time, however, it has eroded privacy by facilitating monitoring and record-tracking.

The SSN is also increasingly being used to commit a group of frauds known as "identity theft." In response, there have been calls to limit the use of SSNs. Though often put forward as solutions to a privacy problem, these proposals are, in fact, largely a matter of crime control. And they would prevent law-abiding citizens and businesses from exchanging true information about one another for good purposes as well as bad.

As a public record, the SSN is a mixed bag. It has streamlined many transactions in both the government- and private-sectors, yet it threatens privacy and is an instrument of crime. These latter harms are unintended consequences the hidden costs of the Social Security program, which catalogues and warehouses data on nearly every living American.


Understanding Amy Boyer's Law: Social Security Numbers, Crime Control, and Privacy, (December, 2000) (PDF format; also available in html format)

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[updated 12/19/00]

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